The Hidden Danger in all this “Productivity” Talk

by Derek Brown

The productivity industry has been rather productive in the last twenty years. Most recently, with the dawn of blogs and vlogs and Twitter accounts, the number of productivity gurus appears to have grown exponentially. Apparently, a lot more people than David Allen are experts in getting things done.


Actually, I’m not convinced that everyone who waxes eloquent about productivity is nearly as productive as their YouTube subscribers are led to think. As one book on a theology of work observes, most of these so-called experts have never produced anything, unless videos on how others can maximize their workdays count as real substance. (The author I just mentioned doesn’t think so.) 

Even so, Christian authors have jumped on the productivity bandwagon and produced (there’s that word again) a fair amount of helpful literature on the topic—and for good reason. Biblically speaking, Christians are those whom God has saved apart from works so that they would be rich in good works (Eph 2:10; Titus 2:13). The indwelling Holy Spirit energizes us to exercise diligence (Prov 13:4), work hard (Col 3:23), meet needs (Titus 3:14), and make the most of our time (Eph 5:15). In a real sense, Christians should be the most productive people on the planet. Historically, they usually have been.

The Hidden Danger in “Productivity”
But there is a danger in all this Christian productivity talk that can derail the good works train before it leaves the theological station. I’ve concluded, on biblical grounds, that the appeal of the productivity trend, for both Christians and unbelievers, is due largely to our nature as God’s image-bearers. God has given us the task of exercising dominion over this earth and stewarding its resources for our benefit and the benefit of others (Gen 1:26-31). Whether or not a person acknowledges the divine origin of their inherent desire to work and create and manage and produce, it is still the case that they were made by their Creator to steward this earth in his stead. The productivity topic appeals to this basic inward compulsion to exercise dominion, which is why multitudes of people, regardless of their religious commitments, are so easily drawn to the latest Tony Robbins conference or Cal Newport book.

Unless the Lord Builds the House
Christians can’t make the mistake, then, that the mere desire for productivity is sufficient to walk in faithfulness to God. There is a way to approach productivity that will actually dishonor our Creator and undermine our efforts. The Psalmist reminds us, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps 127:1). Continuing with the house-building analogy: it is possible to sketch a floor plan, hire subcontractors, order materials, lay footings, pour the concrete, raise framing, fit plumbing, run electrical, and secure sheetrock, and have your efforts impeded or come to nothing because God was not in your work.

Although many of us are not used to thinking this way, it is actually the height of folly for us to set about our work in the world that God has created, where countless variables must fall into place in order for us to accomplish anything, while not acknowledging our Creator. Let’s consider that truth for a moment as we turn back to the house illustration.

In order for that new build to go from its initial planning stages to the final light fixture, laborers must be located and secured. Easy enough, you say. Sure, except that the health, integrity, competency, availability, and work ethic of these workers must align and remain steady over the course of the job. Are such things guaranteed? How can you, a solitary contractor, ensure that these essential factors will remain in place from start to finish?

And what about materials? Every piece needed for that project is dependent upon the work of a thousand different people in a thousand different places synthesizing a thousand bits of other materials in order to deliver what you need. And we haven’t even mentioned the complex schedules of the supply and delivery companies that must be arranged or the unpredictable city permitting process. It is nothing short of arrogance to think that you can waltz through your projects spinning off ribbons of productivity while God is ignored.

What’s the answer, then? Happily, Scripture offers us a solution to our dilemma:

Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established (Prov 16:3).

The resolution isn’t found in turning down your next project and refusing to labor. Rather, we are to work and plan in dependence upon God. The word translated “commit” in this verse is often used in the Old Testament to refer to “rolling” a physical object, like a stone from the mouth of a well or cave (Gen 29:3; Josh 10:18). The idea is that we are to place the ultimate burden of our work upon the Lord rather than assuming it ourselves. Concern over the myriad of interrelated factors that must materialize to bring our plans to completion was never ours to bear; this providential complexity is the handiwork of an infinitely powerful and wise God.

Solomon’s exhortation also implies that in committing our work to the Lord, we are able to do so in good conscience. If we are unable to roll our work and its success upon the Lord with the confidence that what we are doing is pleasing to the Lord (Rom 14:23), then we can’t have the confidence that our plans will be established. Sheer productivity isn’t necessarily commendable: it’s possible to produce harmful goods and services or to neglect other important areas of discipleship while maximizing our professional output. Committing our work to the Lord assumes that our work is the right kind of work in balance with other biblical priorities.            

Commit All Your Work to the Lord
These principles apply to any endeavor we undertake, whether it is parenting, software architecture, graphic design, home management, lesson planning, book writing, preaching, even mundane house and apartment projects like painting or flower planting. It is good to take up our calling as re-created image-bearers and pray along with the psalmist: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands” (Ps 90:17)!

But that’s precisely the approach to productivity that should distinguish believers from those who are presently laboring in God’s world but don’t know or fear their Creator. Reverence, prayer, reliance upon the Lord Jesus, and thanksgiving for the opportunity to enter into productive work will characterize the Christian who stores up Solomon’s promise in his heart. So, yes, be productive, but remember the one who makes you productive and give him the glory he is due. Then, “your plans will be established.”

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